My friends have a fifteen month old child and for various reasons, mainly to do with sleep deprivation, are only now getting some serious TV viewing done after a period of years. Flatteringly they've asked me to point them at some boxed sets, hence this blog post. TV drama is going through a golden age; there is simply so much exciting work out there, much of it (though by no means all) from the US which has married its film industry to cable TV. But the Europeans have much to shout about. Now there's almost too much top drawer drama to comfortably watch. But I've had a go!
Here is my advice, and it's published here on the basis that I fully accept its subjectivity. I've missed out Downton, The Wire, and the Mad Men type of offering - they're mainstream and everyone knows they're great. I'm trying to ski a bit off-piste. Humour me.
One of the great silent scandals of modern TV is the way this series made by the American cable outfit FX has been so widely overlooked here in the UK. That could be because it's set largely in the backwoods of Kentucky and concerns the dealings of a sheriff (played by the dismayingly handsome Timothy Olyphant) and a collection of meph brewing backwoodsmen. Or it could be that it aired on Five US or some similar channel ghetto. That's a shame because its just finished its third season of taut and interesting scripts accompanied by great performances from actors like the aforementioned Olyphant and Wayne Goggins, who starred in the Shield. The highlight so far has been Margo Martindale's outing in Season 2 as a crime matriach for which she won an Emmy. This was unmissable TV and the US critics loved it.
Another show hardly anyone here in the UK has seen, this is a sort of a canny blend of CSI and the X Files. A strange series of paranormal events emerges in the US, which the FBI begin to investigate and christen 'the pattern'. Key to its unravelling is a mad professor (played by Aussie thesp veteran John Noble) who has, let's say, a chequered past and an enthusiasm for drug abuse. Noble proceeds to steal the show, despite a solid effort from Anna Torv who plays the FBI's lead investigator - who has a few surprises of her own. She ends up in a love affair that literally spans universes, but the writers produce sly scripts which boast enough humour and insight to stop the project sliding into silliness. Bravely imaginative, highly confusing and always in danger of shark jumping, this show is a rollercoaster ride into the imagination of its creators led by the fabulous JJ Abrams. An acquired taste, certainly. But addictive once acquired.
Statistic of the week. 2.3 million are watching Homeland on Channel 4 in the UK, which like the Killing became cult viewing among the twitterati. This audience is bigger than the one that watched it in the States on its home channel, Showtime. The lead character, a soldier who returns from Afghanistan after a period of captivity, is played by the former RSC actor Damian Lewis who many viewers will recognise from Band of Brothers. He's investigated by the rather bonkers CIA agent Claire Danes. This tale of modern espionage manners is conducted against a classy jazz based score and great support from Mandy Patinkin who plays Danes's stressed boss. Apparently this is an effort from two of '24's former producers but there's none of the thoughtless gung ho nonsense of the former series, rather a dark seriousness with flares of persuasive well-directed action. It's based on an earlier Israeli series, which I have so far failed to unearth but I'd certainly be keen to see.
This French offering from Son et Lumiere features a unit of hard bitten and somewhat corrupt Parisian cops who in the first season take on a serial killer. So far so procedural, except the premise is really a starting point for exploring the diseased relationship between police, the judiciary and politicians. Mirroring this official chaos is the anarchic private life of the police captain played by Caroline Proust, who can't keep a man to save her life. She's the central character but in fact all the performances are strong and the plots are wickedly smart. A fourth season is about to be screened this year, which is excellent news because so far each of the seasons have been stronger than the previous one. It helps the producers that the backdrop is Paris which is classy or seedy on demand; naturally I thought all the sexual and financial shenannigans had to be fictional, until the arrest of Dominque Strauss Khan which showed the programme makers had, if anything, under egged the pudding.
Attracting very little attention over here by contrast to its hit status in the US, AMC's Walking Dead is an adaptation of a graphic novel series featuring the take over of the earth by zombies. Only a few survivors are left, led by former sheriff Andrew Lincoln who everyone here will remember as Egg from This Life, another case of a Brit actor doing brilliantly in the US (UK producers look to your laurels) There is a stark difference between Season One, which is essential and Season Two, which frankly is not. This is because producer Frank Darabont, who's idea this was, left in a huff when Mad Men appropriated a large part of the second run's budget. Still - both efforts are taut and terrifying pieces of television.
So that's my list for my TV-exiled mates. I've missed out contenders like Breaking Bad, which is stunning, but I'm going for range here. Thoughts?